Monday, March 9, 2015

Modi’s Visit and Importance of Indian Ocean Region

Anushree Ghisad, 
Research Intern, VIF

According to Will Durant, discovery of agriculture and invention of printing press are two breakthroughs which have fashioned and transformed the course of history. Modern historians believe that another invention which drastically altered the course of history was the discovery of trade winds by Hippolus in 45 AD. It gave rise to Indian Ocean trade, which was stable, continuous and less risky due to predictability of monsoon winds. India has always been at the fulcrum of this network of trade route which encompassed diverse players and resources that connected many port cities in Indian Ocean. Only once did this ever flourishing trade see a decline, i e during the Mongol empire when land routes became safer and cheap, but it emerged again in the 14th century. This Indian Ocean Region (IOR) trade facilitated unprecedented level of people to people interaction and brought about exchange of ideas which shaped the world view of these ‘Monsoon societies’.

Island nations emerged as jewels of the Indian Ocean due to their critical locations. The thriving cultural connect was visible during the colonial era when thousands of Indians were taken to these islands as indentured labour, and the vibrant India connect remained a feature of decolonization and post decolonization era, which automatically brought them under India’s sphere of influence.

Scramble for Indian Ocean: Where does India Figure?

In this globalized era, the IOR has emerged as the most dynamic yet coveted and unstable region. Major sea lines of the world, accounting for two third of global trade, pass through this region which is surrounded by energy scarce developing countries. Even pre and post-cold war geopolitics have opened this region for proxy wars. Hence, muscle show in Indian Ocean has become a tool of diplomacy to secure allies who are vital for surveillance and to protect trade and military interests of a nation. Hence, be it under the pretext of cold war or pivot to Asia or Maritime Silk Route; every major power wants to establish its dominance on Indian Ocean, by bringing littoral nations under its sphere of influence. This has challenged India’s historical preeminence in this region.

Indian Initiatives

The new Indian government had spelt out the priorities of its foreign policy by inviting the Prime Minister of Mauritius along with heads of SAARC nations at the swearing in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which was followed by the External Affairs Minister’s travel to Mauritius and Maldives. Modi’s upcoming visit to three island nations; Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles is another step in the direction of India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.

Recognising the strategic importance of this region, UPA government in 2005 had embarked upon a policy to influence IOR by engaging four western Indian Ocean islands – Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles and Madagascar - economically, militarily and through diplomatic cooperation. On the sidelines of the 17th SAARC Summit in Addu Atoll, India, Sri Lanka & Maldives decided to begin fusing of naval operations and common exercise programmes. India’s brainchild like ‘Indian Ocean Naval Symposium’ (IONS) seeks to increase maritime co-operation among navies of the littoral states of the IOR by providing an open and inclusive forum for discussion of regionally relevant maritime issues.1 The 2014 Biennial International maritime exercise off Anadaman, ‘MILAN’, saw unprecedented participation of western Indian Ocean nations like Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka. Former President Pratibha Patil’s visit to Seychelles in 2012 and the External Affairs Minister’s visit to Mauritius in 2015 are among the other steps taken in the recent past to intensify bilateral relations.

Assessing Diplomatic Damages

Despite recognizing the crucial location of SIDS (Small Island Developing Nations) and their centrality in India’s foreign policy, India’s profile in its neighbourhood is shrinking rapidly, not only due to China’s aggressive surge or USA’s centrality to Asia-Pacific in its rebalancing, but also due to some diplomatic miscalculations on India’s part. More than two thirds of Mauritian population is of Indian origin, yet continuing uncertainties over the tax treaty with India are having a negative impact on employment opportunities as well as existing jobs in the island nation's financial services industry.2 Sri Lanka is a maritime hub connecting India with rest of the world, and has the potential to play similar role in China’s growing trade with Africa. Yet narrow political considerations during the former coalition regime of UPA soured the Indo-Lanka ties, and the vacuum thus created was swiftly filled up by China and Pakistan. India’s failure to take a firm stand on the internal political turmoil in Maldives led to the emergence of a dynastic Islamist regime which, under covert Chinese support, threw out the Indian firm GMR from the Male Airport contract and challenged India’s eminence in the region. In the ongoing face-off between Nasheedist and Gayoomists, India has failed to break the ice between two leading to cancellation of Modi’s visit to Maldives on the backdrop of a ‘probable Chinese choreographed’ arrest of the former President and champion of democracy, Mohamed Nasheed. The cost of mismanagement of neighbourhood policy would be severe, as India’s rivals would spare no stone unturned to encash the situation in their favour.

China Angle

Some believe that Indian foreign policy need not be seen through Chinese prism as being an emerging power, China has legitimate aspirations to expand its footprints and secure its trade and commercial interest. India has always endorsed peaceful coexistence, and has maintained that it wants an open, transparent and inclusive security structure in the Indian Ocean. If China is heavily dependent on the strait of Malacca and Lombok, then over 90 percent of India’s international trade by volume is dependent on sea, where China is flexing its muscles by building ports in Bagamoyo (Biggest port in Africa once completed, it will handle twenty times more cargo than Dar-es-Salam port) to Hambantota, Sittwe and Gwadar and securing naval bases by injecting soft loans in SIDS like Maldives and Mauritius. While no one has any objection to a healthy competition for economic ventures, alarm bells ring when China turn these ‘economic’ prepositions into strategic and political ones by docking nuclear submarines at Hambantota or sending a military delegation to Seychelles. This defeats the purpose of the very ‘transparent, open and inclusive security structure in Indian Ocean’ which India wants.

China is resorting to neo imperialistic tactics by using tourism diplomacy to promote its presence in these island nations and thus making their tourism driven economies dependent on China. As per Minivan News daily of Maldives, ‘in a phenomenon that caught many industry experts by surprise, the number of Chinese tourists visiting the Maldives tripled from about 100,000 in 2010 to more than 300,000 last year. In 2014, Chinese tourists accounted for nearly one-third of arrivals with a 30% market share, representing the single biggest source market for tourists to the Maldives.’ Timing and signaling is vital in diplomacy, and the nature of signals emanating from China at such a juncture raises questions about the ‘peaceful rise of China’ amidst the hunt for string of pearls.

According to India’s former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, China’s Indian Ocean Policy is to ‘select location meticulously, make deployment discreetly, give priority to cooperative activities and penetrate gradually’. The ‘roll out’ of guidance is apparent in the wake of the recent Chinese activities of port building, ship visit and Maritime Silk Route project in India’s neighbourhood, he argues. China has spelt out its Indian Ocean Strategy in a ‘Blue Book’ prepared by a Chinese think tank, which says, ‘ If China cannot have a positive impact on the Indian Ocean littoral states, then future situation will be even more severe, affecting China’s development and peace negatively.’ It further adds, ‘A clear development strategy in the Indian Ocean Region is not only a sign of China’s self-confidence, but a clear demonstration of its strategic interests.’3

As for the comparison between Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, India has always stood for mutual cooperation and reciprocity in Indian Ocean region, as against China’s expansionist and obstinate stance in South China Sea, and this startling difference of stratagem provides a furtive look into the psyches of respective governments.

The 21st century is being projected as the ‘Asian Century’. With two of its rising powers poised to take the global center stage, many academicians have opined that ‘cooperation and not confrontation’ is the way forward. China has slightly twisted the mantra; it is ‘convenient cooperation and calibrated confrontation’ for CPC. Despite the fact that China is much ahead of India on economic and military fronts and on some social parameters as well, India’s meteoric rise on the global panorama has undoubtedly left China frantic, which is absolutely in no mood to ‘accommodate’ India in Asia’s success story. And this is evident from the way in which China is clandestinely clamouring to reshape the geopolitics of Indian Ocean Region.

The Way Ahead

As Shyam Saran says, ‘India is at the cross-roads of the many connecting corridors that bound this space together in the past. These corridors are being revived and we must ensure that they do not by pass us.’

Modi’s proposed visit to the three island nations is to reassert that this is our historical and cultural neighbourhood. Geography favours us, but geopolitical equations demand that we develop an innovative strategy to respond to new challenges in IOR, not only for India’s security, but also for its continued prosperity. India has to push for ‘region centric development’ where these island nations also benefit from India’s success story. Ambassador of Bangladesh Ahmad Tariq Karim has already proposed an idea of SAARC minus Pakistan to rejuvenate SAARC, and in that context, expanding SAARC’s horizons to include Mauritius and Seychelles can be a step in the direction of regional cooperation. Seychelles is already working with India in developing ‘Blue Economy’, which can be further extended to Mauritius, Maldives and Sri Lanka. With a stable democracy and rising middle class, India has to play a constructive role in ensuring stability in its backyard which constitutes more than 10 percent of global GDP.

Apart from neighborhood first, there are two more angles to Modi's visits, which is domestically engaged foreign policy and public diplomacy. Modi’s Sri Lanka visit is to push soft power & project India’s Buddhist links, and his visit to Mauritius coincides with Mauritian national day which is celebrated on 12th March (the date of launch of Dandi Salt March), as a tribute to Gandhiji and the Indian freedom struggle. Like PAN-African satellite tele-medicine system of which Seychelles is a part, Mauritius and Maldives too can be brought under a similar scheme as they anyway avail a lot of medical tourism which is evident from the fact that around 70 Maldivian nationals fly directly into Bangalore daily, mostly seeking medical treatment. India has to engage with Maldives even if the current visit of PM has been called off, as Maldives is India’s old friend and strategically located in western Indian Ocean. Half of the Maldivian population is below the age of 30, so engaging them with India’s youth can produce long term dividends.

In reaching out to its extended neighbourhood, India will need to demonstrate that its sub-continental neighbours are not mere passage-ways to the realms lying east, west and north, but fellow travelers on a shared and exciting journey that echoes their glorious past and beckons a bright future.4
As geostrategist A T Mahan appropriately puts it, “the destiny of the world would be decided on Indian Ocean’s waters’”. Hence, Modi’s proposed visit to the four island nations is not just to reassert that Indian Ocean is India’s historical and cultural neighbourhood, but to ensure that it remains ‘India’s Ocean’.

  3. The Hindu, 9th June 2013
  4. India and East Asia – Moving from the Margins to the Centre, India International Centre, February 14, 2015,Shyam Saran

Published Date: 9th March 2015, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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